Understanding the Role of the Trumpet in Classical Music

By David Pogue, Scott Speck

In sheer sonic force, the trumpet is the strongest of all orchestral instruments. As the highest-pitched brass instrument in classical music, the trumpet can be heard over the rest of the orchestra; it’s also the instrument from which wrong notes are the most noticeable. The trumpet is the most fleet and agile brass instrument. It can execute impressive runs and leaps at a single bound.

Trumpet players live for the great music written in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where the trumpet soars above everyone else. Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, for example, opens with 12 long, glorious bars of trumpet solo before the rest of the orchestra comes crashing in. Moments such as these send trumpet players into fits of twitching ecstasy. But they’re not picky; any work by Mahler (or Richard Wagner, Strauss, or Anton Bruckner) will do nicely.

Like the French horn, the original trumpet (before the invention of valves) could produce only a few different notes. Have you ever heard a military bugle — an ancient species of “natural” trumpet with no valves — play “Reveille” or “Taps”? Those pieces use only four notes. Over and over and over again.

Modern trumpets are much more versatile. They come in several different sizes, just as clarinets do. On each trumpet, the lips by themselves can produce just a few different notes; valves, just as on modern horns, also enable the fingers to get into the pitch-changing action. But instead of the horn’s rotary valves, most trumpets use piston valves, which work slightly differently.

The trumpet.

Tonguing

Now, it’s time to explore the sensitive and sometimes controversial topic of tonguing. All trumpet players (and indeed, all brass and woodwind players) must learn to tongue — even if theyre deeply religious.

Tonguing is the act of articulating (separating) the notes in a piece of music instead of slurring them all together. Any time you hear a burst of staccato trumpetfire, you can be sure that the player is tonguing. “Reveille” (the military “wake up!” piece) is the perfect example of a piece of music where every single note is tongued.

Tonguing essentially involves saying “ta-ta-ta” into your little trumpet mouthpiece, meanwhile pursing your lips into a tight buzzing knot. The result: Each note pops out of the instrument with a clean, sharp attack. With slight variations in technique, you can articulate notes on the French horn, trombone, and tuba this way, as well.

Using mutes

You can change the sound of any brass instrument by sticking a mute into its bell. But trumpets get muted more than any other kind of instrument.

Many kinds of mutes exist, and the sounds they produce range from merely muffled to strained and brassy. The most common kind of trumpet mute makes the trumpet sound like it’s coming from very far away.

Then there’s the “wah wah” mute, used all the time in jazz music. You can probably guess what that one sounds like.

Hearing the trumpet

For a short and beautiful trumpet fanfare, listen to Handel’s Water Music (Track 01) at 0:16. And you can hear some thrilling trumpet action going on in Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (Track 09; 6:22).

If you find the sound of the trumpet — muted or not — particularly to your liking, listen to these concertos:

  • Joseph Haydn: Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major

  • Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Trumpet Concerto in E major (or transposed into E-flat major)

You can also hear some extremely important trumpet licks in these ­orchestral works:

  • Beethoven: Leonore Overture no. 3

  • Mahler: Symphony no. 5 (first movement)

  • Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra; the opening)

  • Ottorino Respighi: Pines of Rome

  • Aaron Copland: Billy the Kid